NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots squeaked out a 23-21 win over the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season opener Sunday afternoon. But for the better part of four quarters inside Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills offense looked like the more dependable one.
New England’s new-look attack was sent sputtering from three unsuccessful red-zone drives, multiple missed blocking assignments from the offensive line, fumbles from running back Stevan Ridley and quarterback Tom Brady, a bobbled catch-turned-interception from tight end Zach Sudfeld, and just four receptions on 14 targets from wideout Kenbrell Thompkins.
Yet down just one with 4:31 left in the final frame, the Patriots defense forced a three-and-out, which afforded Brady and Co. one last opportunity to win the game. And 48 yards later, a 35-yard field goal from kicker Stephen Gostkowski did just that.
New England’s 12-play final drive was more than a display of cohesion, though; it was a display of trust between Brady, tailback Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola.
As the Patriots maneuvered through the Bills defense with only minutes remaining, Vereen totaled 31 yards on five touches, while Brady kneeled twice for a loss of three yards.
Although when the Patriots needed to move the sticks in the underneath, it was Amendola who was called upon.
3rd-and-3: Six-Yard Quick Slant
On the third play of New England’s make-or-break drive, the offense left the huddle in “11” personnel with Vereen flanking Brady in shotgun, and with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in abutting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on the line.
With it being a third-and-short situation, Amendola lined up out wide left before motioning into the slot. That adjustment drew Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin along with him, all while the Buffalo sub-package defensive front planned to rush five from the weak side.
As Brady took the snap and went through his reads, the 5’11”, 185-pound Texas Tech product planted his left food in the direction of the flats before cutting towards the hashes. That subtle move caught McKelvin with his back to the outside, conceding the middle of the field for his man to run a quick slant.
With the Bills sending extra bodies on the blitz, linebacker territory was vacant. And Brady saw it.
With the lane clear, Amendola was able establish inside seating. He maintained body lean through the diagonal turn and looked back to his QB with his arms ready to extend.
Concurrently, strong-side linebacker Jerry Hughes – who was the lone linebacker to drop back in zone – switched field to help contest the play. Safety Jim Leonhard soon followed.
But before the assistance could arrive on scene, Amendola was able to glove the football.
His early quick-out cut transformed into a quick slant, and New England’s fifth-year route-runner was able to capitalize on the deception. Not only did he make the most of his initial body language, he added to the capitalization by keeping his feet churning with the ball airborne.
As the ball sailed in, the 2008 undrafted free-agent pointed his left foot in the direction he intended to go. That presence of mind maximized his acceleration as he made a “U” with his fingers and thumbs to inhale the pass.
The culmination of those factors netted the Patriots a six-yard gain; it netted the Patriots new life on a vital third-down with just over three minutes remaining.
2nd-and-4: Six-Yard Pivot Route
After a six-yard scamper by Vereen on first down, the Patriots set themselves up for a 2nd-and-4 just before the two-minute warning. Vying to keep the Bills uneven, the offense spread five wide with one tight end and no backs.
Buffalo responded with a two-up, two-down front, playing off of Amendola and fellow New England receiver Julian Edelman in the seams.
This scenario played right into the hands of Amendola, who was prepped to run a pivot – a route Wes Welker practically trademarked during his time in Foxborough, Mass. The premise behind the pivot is to bunch the linebackers and safeties inside as the receiver, just before the receiver plants and turns back outside.
On second down, it worked as well as it’s drawn up.
As Brady harnessed the shotgun snap, Amendola broke off the line and inside. This misdirection attracted the attention on safety Aaron Williams and middle linebacker Nigel Bradham.
Just when the two Bills started to cheat up, Amendola planted his inside foot and stopped on a dime before swinging towards the numbers.
Brady deposited a ball in the direction of Amendola – who was in a five-yard bubble – and No. 80 snagged it on the run. He spun up the field as Williams and Bradham closed in.
With one late swivel, Amendola burrowed past the first-down marker before being tackled.
Amendola’s quick feet and proclivity in regards to catching passes on the run gave New England its second first down in just three plays.
1st-and-15: Four-Yard Drag Route
A false start by right guard Dan Connolly put the Patriots offense in a 1st-and-15 at the Buffalo 46-yard line. Striving to chip away at that deficit with under two minutes to go, New England shipped out in a three-wide set versus Buffalo’s nickel defense, with Amendola motioning inside from the “Z.”
Bills cornerback Justin Rogers joined the Patriots pass-catcher, who was gearing up for a drag route right behind the five-man rush.
Off the snap, Amendola stuttered as if he was running a comeback. But that was merely a façade, which brought rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso back on his heels. And with Rogers providing a soft cushion – covering the back 10 instead of the front five – Amendola was able to carve through the teeth of the defense.
As Alonso assumed a spy role on Vereen in the flats, Brady led Amendola through clear pasture.
Amendola reeled the pass in and got two hands wrapped around it before Leonhard wrapped him up.
Amendola’s drag only gained four yards. Nevertheless, he took what the defense gave him. In turn, the completion brought the Patriots to a much more manageable 2nd-and-11.
3rd-and-8: 10-yard Takeoff Route
Following a three-yard pass to Shane Vereen down the left sideline, the Patriots embattled a pivotal 3rd-and-8 at Buffalo’s 39-yard line. It was either move the chains, face a fourth down, or attempt 56-yard field goal in a hostile environment with a rookie holder.
For head coach Bill Belichick and staff, move the chains sounded like the best option.
With Vereen in the backfield next to Brady, the offense sent trips right with Thompkins split left. Buffalo replied with dime defensive backs and one safety deep over top.
Amendola aligned in the slot, where inside corner Ron Brooks loomed. He was orchestrated to run a takeoff route up through the secondary to the first-down marker.
As Brady handled the snap from center Ryan Wendell, Amendola veered outside. And with Brooks unexpectedly jamming Edelman’s in route, a natural pick was set over top. Amendola kept balance and zeroed in on center field.
Brady saw the window – which was noticeably expanded with the safeties draped deep – and waited for Amendola to cross through it.
Anticipating the void, Brady released a ball sighted towards the 27-year-old. And although it was deflected at the line by defensive tackle Kyle Williams, it reached its intended man.
Amendola stepped out in front of a closing Williams snare it.
He did. Even though the collision with Williams put him on spin cycle, Amendola was able to retain possession of the ball through contact with both the defensive back and the turf.
Amendola sold out for the ball and gave the Patriots offense a 10-yard gain when at least eight were needed.
Sitting on the 30-yard line, New England went by ground for the next three plays and exhausted all three of Buffalo’s timeouts. Then, with five seconds left on the clock, Gostkowski’s kick went through the uprights.
Not only was Amendola key in making it all transpire, he was vital. His performance on the Patriots’ game-winning drive consisted of four receptions, with three coming on third downs, for 26 yards and a trio of first-downs.
Amendola rose to the occasion late despite re-aggravating a nagging groin injury in the second quarter. He was listed as “questionable” to return.
Yet by the time the scoreboard read triple zeroes, the former Dallas Cowboys practice squadder had accounted for nine of the team’s 18 first-down pass completions. He had accounted for seven third-down conversions. And in total, he had accounted for 10 receptions and 104 yards.